February 21st: The Ashbourne Royal Shrovetide Football Match


'Running lightly over spongy ground
Past the pasture of flat stones,
The three elms.
The sheep strewn on a field...'

From: 'Running lightly over spongy ground' by Theodore Roethke (1908-1963)

As you may have guessed by now, I am not a sporty person. Anything that means I have to run round in my knickers, or get hot, sweaty or wet has never been my idea of fun. I spent miserable hours at school on the wing of hockey pitches never touching the ball. I quite liked tennis, mostly because of the flattering kit and I didn’t mind fielding at cricket or even better watching it. Eventually when I asked to do extra French lessons in order to get out of games my erstwhile teammates were delighted.

However when I was researching the hurling tradition in Cornwall I found there were strong similarities between hurling, which involves chasing a small silver ball over hill and down dale, and an early variation of football called ‘mob football’ which similarly ranged freely over the countryside.

Mob football games took place between teams of young men from neighbouring parishes and like Cornish hurling matches were often played on Shrove Tuesday. Shrove Tuesday festivities began with the tolling of the ‘Pancake Bell’ at 12 noon signalling the start of the half-holiday, everyone stopped work, the football games began and they eventually ended at dusk with a prolonged visit to the local inn.

Mob Football dates back to before the 12th century and was played virtually without rules, you weren’t allowed to actually maim members of the other team but almost anything else was tolerated. It was very rough and very disruptive and eventually it was forbidden within town walls.



King Edward II issued a decree on 13 April 1314;

For as much as there is a great noise in the city caused by hustling over large balls, from which many evils may arrice, what God forbid, we can command and forbid on behalf of the King, on pain of imprisonment, such games to be used in the city in future.

Such football games did continue though, and Shakespeare mentions them in ‘The Comedy of Errors’

‘Am I so round with you, as you with me, that like a foot-ball you doe spurne me thus: you spurne me hence, and he will spurne me hither, if I last in this service, you must case me in leather.’

The final death knell however came in 1835 when Highways Act prohibited ‘the playing of football on public highways, (shall incur) a maximum penalty of forty shillings’

Amazingly there are one or two places where mob football is still played; at Christmas in the Orkney Islands and on Shrove Tuesday at Purbeck and the Royal Shrovetide Football Match at Ashbourne in Derbyshire. The game has been played here for nearly a thousand years with barely a break. It’s called the ‘Royal Football Match’ because the future King Edward the Eighth played it in 1928 and in 2003 Prince Charles was the ‘turner-up’ who starts the game off.

There is no pitch, there are an unlimited number of players and the goals are three miles apart. The ball is filled with cork so that it will float in the river and it can be carried, kicked or stuffed up your jumper. The game lasts all afternoon and evening but must end by 10pm when all concerned repair to The Green Man’ for speeches and celebrations.

About ten years after the Highways Act of 1835, the rules of football began to evolve; local variants were ironed out and the beautiful game eventually developed into the one we watch today, but Mob Football is where it all started. Now you know.

My husband (who doesn’t get much of a look in on this blog – although he eats what I make) tells me that meat pies are the traditional food at football matches. Here’s a traditional pie, sometimes known as a Drovers Pie that can be eaten without benefit of cutlery. Mutton is traditional in Derbyshire as are oats; this pie combines both ingredients.

Derbyshire Drovers’ Pies

300g minced lamb
1 onion chopped into fingernail sized pieces
1/2 pint lamb stock (a cube is fine)
A pinch of thyme
Oil or lard

Fry the onion in the fat until nicely golden then add the mince and brown it. Add the lamb stock and herbs and simmer for 30-40 minutes until the liquid has all but disappeared, taste and season well. Allow to cool completely.

Make yeast dough with 8oz strong white flour, 4oz wholemeal and 4oz oatmeal, 1 tps salt, ½ sachet instant dried yeast and 2 tablespoons melted lard or oil and ½ pint water. Add all the ingredients together and knead until an elastic dough is reached (a dough hook makes this very easy).

Leave to rise for an hour in a warm place. Knock the dough back and roll out as you would pastry and to about 1/2 cm thick. It's quite resilient and less likely to leak than shortcrust so don't worry.

Cut out a number of rectangles about 3”x 5” and wet the dough round the edges. Lay your cold lamb mixture down the middle and roll up like a sausage roll, pinching the ends to seal. Brush the rolls with egg and lay on a baking sheet. Leave in a cool place for another 30minutes then bake at 200c for about 30minutes.

I think you are supposed to eat this accompanied by a mug of Bovril, but strong tea would do me..

There's a town still plays this glorious game

Tho' tis but a little spot.

And year by year the contest's fought

From the field that's called Shaw Croft.

Then friend meets friend in friendly strife

The leather for to gain,

'And they play the game right manfully,

In snow, sunshine or rain.

From : The Ashbourne Football Song, composed 1891 (anon)

3 comments:

Gerry Snape said...

I too was always on the wing! cold and fed-up....great story today with such a brilliant date!

Suzy - Sudden Lunch said...

What a lovely blog. I have just discovered you and, hope you don't mind, have recommended you for a Versatile Blogger Award.

Liz said...

I'd be delighted to be a versatile blogger - thank you very much Suzy!
xLiz